"Intention against the good of the sacrament"
It is essential to Catholic sacramental theology that three things must be present for a sacrament to be effacious - Right form, right matter, and right intention. With the Eucharist, it is a sacrament when it is celebrated with the right words (form), upon bread and wine by an ordained priest (matter), who intends to confect the sacrament according to the teaching of the Church (intention). Marriage, as a sacrament, also requires proper form, matter and intention. If any of the three are lacking, it cannot be said to be a valid sacrament, the same way that if a Dorito is confected by a priest the Eucharist cannot be objectively present (sorry attendees of "pizza & pop" Masses in the 1970s). In the sacrament of marriage (to be distinguished from merely legal marriage), the priest doesn't "do" the marriage, instead the ordained deacon or priest is there to WITNESS to the Church that the two parties THEMSELVES have the proper form, matter and intention. But it is up to the parties themselves to confect the sacrament!
"Annullments" and "marriage tribunals" and all this "gobbledy-gook" jargon and nuancing may seem ridiculous to some of you, I know it did to me for years. I understand why some of you might hear about these "legalistic details" and scoff at them, turning away from it all and considering that it is all manmade nonsense. But, I hope and pray that more of you will make an honest effort to understand why the Church has the system it does regarding marriage and its validity. It boils down to something very simple - you either accept the dignity and character of marriage as given to us by God to learn how to become more perfect images of Trinitarian love, or you don't. If you accept this (and if you claim to be Catholic, you'd better!), then you must also accept the importance and the duty of protecting marriage, and the right understanding of marriage, from corruption. Any attempt to do that will naturally bring in all kinds of "jargon", such is the way of fallen human nature in dealing with simple issues that sin has made far too complex.
Here is a fascinating look at a particular annulment case heard before the Church's highest tribunal (the Roman Rota) over 50 years ago. The always insightful canonist Ed Peters translated it for those who are interested in such details of canon law.
The case in a nutshell: Following WWII, a French woman civilly divorced her Italian husband, after he had been interned in a concentration camp. The husband then sought an annulment. The annulment was initially granted by the Church, citing the wife's determination to not enter into marriage as permanent and sacramental union ("intention against the good of the sacrament"). A higher court (I presume reviewing cases on its own) overturned this annulment, saying that this intention was not clear enough to be decisive. The husband then submitted the case to the highest tribunal for review. The link above gives the findings of this court, which basically agreed with the first tribunal's determination that the wife did not intend sacramental marriage, and that the marriage could, therefore, be annulled. Got that? Whew!
There are many fascinating details that this case shows us about the need for our parishes to emphasize more and more clearly the sacramental character of Catholic marriage, and to show some discernment on the part of priests in condoning marriage liturgies in the Church. Two points in particular:
First, this case deals with the issue of "intention against the good of the sacrament" - in basic terms, this means that it deals with whether or not one of the spouses entered into marriage with the intention of seeking divorce and being free to marry again if it "doesn't work". This means that the spouse did not (at the time of marriage) and still does not hold that marriage itself is an indissoluble sacrament. As I understand it, the three requirments for a sacramental marriage are: 1) that the baptized man and woman are free to be married in the Church (there are no impediments, such as a prior marriage with the spouse still living), 2) that both understand and accept that marriage is Faithful (one husband, one wife), Fruitful (children are to be accepted as God's gifts and are not to be denied), and Forever (marriage lasts for as long as both spouses live, and cannot be dissolved) and 3) that both parties enter into marriage freely without coerciion. Any lack regarding these three issues can be grounds for granting an annullment.
In this case, the spouse is not actually intending to be married at all, because she is not really intending to enter into marriage "until death do us part". This "un intention" to marry forever, then, can thus be cause for the granting of a decree that the marriage was sacramentally null and void.
This brings us to the second point - this case happened over 50 years ago, long before "divorce" was as culturally common as it is now (notwithstanding the fact that the case relates that the French spouse did indeed see divorce as being common to her country at that time - another discussion for another day). Yet this very fact, namely, that this woman was "culturally conditioned" (so it seems) to accept divorce, and then freely chose to allow this conditioning to form her own will regarding marriage, effectively rendered this attempt at marriage null and void. Wow. Remember, this is 50 years ago - compare this case to where we are at now, culturally. Today, pick any Catholic off the street, ask if they were married in the Catholic Church, and ask them if they thought then, and think now, that divorce might be an option for reasons X, Y, or Z. Chances are, they'll agree that it is - and guess what, if their marriage ever goes on the rocks and they seek an annullment, your testimony that they told you this fact could in fact contribute to their being granted an annullment. Because they never had a marriage in the first place. Do they KNOW this? No. Does it really matter? Not necessarily - not until divorce suddenly happens and isn't just an option. Until that time, the Church continues to recognize their marriage as valid and binding, because there is no way to know the human heart. Additionally, marriages that are entered into under questionable validity can become valid - but that is a topic for another forum than this.
What this does mean, however, is that while some may have been skeptical of the sheer number of annulments that have been granted in the United States and elsewhere these last few decades, there may be more to it than simply having too many "rubber stampers" in the tribunal offices. If we take this decision from 1956 seriously, can we not fail to question whether or not this is a prophetic case for today?
Look at what has happened in our land since the era of divorce descended upon us like a thick and poisonious cloud - every kind of social and familial ill under the sun, now commonplace. Chesterton, even more than 50 years ago, foresaw this, and linked it all back to one misstep in society: the loss of an understanding of the permenance and dignity of marriage between a man and a woman, for the sake of unity and offspring.
One other thing to remember - when a valid sacrament is lacking, the specific sacramental grace that it would have imparted is also lacking objectively (that is not to say that God cannot will to grant grace, it only says that the effaciousness of the sacrament as promised by God through the Church was absent). To lose sacramental marriages hurts us all, because it is also a loss of grace that was meant to build up their family, their community, and the world at large. A butterfly flaps its wings...